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CIA admits to spying on Senate committee

CIA Director John Brennan apologized for improperly accessing Senate computers, confirming allegations made by Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California.
Deputy National Security Adviser Brennan is sworn in to testify before Senate Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington
John Brennan is sworn in to testify before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on his nomination to be the director of the CIA, on Capitol Hill in Washington on Feb. 7, 2013.

Central Intelligence Agency officials spied on computers used by the Senate Intelligence Committee, which was investigating controversial Bush-era detention and interrogation programs, an internal investigation has found.

The reports summary states that five agency employees, including two attorneys and three IT staffers, were involved in "improperly" accessing the committee's computers

According to CIA spokesperson Dean Boyd, agency director John Brennan apologized to Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California and Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the chair and vice chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, respectively.

Feinstein confirmed that she met Tuesday with Brennan and called the apology and the inspector general report "positive first steps."

Sen. Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, called Thursday for Brennan to resign, and said that he failed to deliver on promises of change at the CIA. "From the unprecedented hacking of congressional staff computers and continued leaks undermining the Senate Intelligence Committee's investigation of the CIA's detention and interrogation program to his abject failure to acknowledge any wrongdoing by the agency, I have lost confidence in John Brennan.”

In response to the report's findings, Brennan has commissioned an ”accountability board” to “review the [Office of the Inspector General] report, conduct interviews as needed, and provide the director with recommendations that, depending on its findings, could include potential disciplinary measures and/or steps to address systemic issues.”That board, the CIA announced, will be headed by former Indiana Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh. 

The CIA's admission on Thursday came after months of tension between the Senate committee and the CIA over the spying allegations. Feinstein and Brennan clashed in March, when Feinstein first accused the CIA of spying on the committee staffers after repeatedly trying to undermine their investigation.

“This was done without the knowledge or approval of committee members or staff, and in violation of our written agreements. Further, this type of behavior would not have been possible had the CIA allowed the committee to conduct the review of documents here in the Senate,” Feinstein said March 11 on the Senate floor.

Brennan called Feinstein’s allegations unfounded and predicted vindication for himself and the CIA.

“I mean, we wouldn't do that. I mean, that's -- that's just beyond the -- you know, the scope of reason in terms of what we would do,” he said on the same day Feinstein raised the accusations. “When the facts come out on this, I think a lot of people who are claiming that there has been this tremendous sort of spying and monitoring and hacking will be proved wrong.”

Instead, Brennan was proven wrong.

For months, the CIA had been publicly disputing the findings of the yet-to-be published Senate investigation. Combing through agency documents, committee staffers found an internal CIA report, referred to as the "Panetta Review." The Panetta Review came to similar conclusions about the interrogation program as the results of the Senate investigation, thus undermining the agency's criticisms of the committee's work. The Panetta Review later disappeared from the computers being used by Senate staffers, removed by the CIA. 

"Unlike the official response, these Panetta Review documents were in agreement with the committee's findings," Feinstein said in March. "That's what makes them so significant and important to protect."

The inspector general's report also found that the CIA's "crimes report" filed to the Justice Department, alleging that Senate Intelligence Committee staff may have illegally accessed agency documents, was based on "inaccurate information."

Despite CIA resistance, senators voted in April to declassify sections the committee’s 6,000 page torture report, and a declassified summary of the report is expected in the next few days.

According to The Washington Post, the report found that the CIA had lied about the effectiveness of the inhumane “enhanced interrogation techniques” it used in order to continue using them.

In addition to Udall, other members of the Senate Intelligence Committee expressed outrage Thursday over the news.

Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Washington, said in a statement that there must be an investigation into the CIA spying.

“What’s needed now is a public apology from Director Brennan to staff and the committee, a full accounting of how this occurred and a commitment there will be no further attempts to undermine congressional oversight of CIA activities.”

Bayh, who is tasked with leading the review, retired from the Senate in 2011, after which he signed a contributor contract with Fox News and became partner at a law firm that represents a number of major medical device manufacturers. One of Bayh’s most recent forays into public life was to pen a Wall Street Journal op-ed opposing the Affordable Care Act’s medical device tax.

For some civil liberties advocates, an internal review board is not enough.

“An apology is not enough – the Justice Department must refer the CIA inspector general’s report to a federal prosecutor for a full investigation into any crimes by CIA personnel or contractors," American Civil Liberties Union senior legislative counsel Christopher Anders said in a statement. "These latest developments are only the most recent manifestations of a CIA that seems to believe that it is above and beyond the law. An uncontrolled – and seemingly uncontrollable – CIA threatens the very foundations of our Constitution.”

Liza Goitein, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, told msnbc that Brennan’s admission and apology raises serious questions about executive branch interference in congressional oversight. Because of that possibility, Goitein said, all of the CIA inspector general’s findings need to be made public as soon as possible.

“I think this disclosure about contents of IG report, which comes on the heels of the Snowden disclosures, on the heels of disclosures of NSA noncompliance, really underscores that internal accountability measures —  self-policing —  is never sufficient,” Goitein said. “It may be better than nothing, it may be helpful, but it’s not sufficient. There needs to be external oversight and there needs to be transparency.”

Adam Serwer contributed reporting.